Biochemistry: Fighting Cancer, Finding Nylon

November 5, 2012

When scientists at the Duke Cancer Institute launched a study exploring the biochemical changes inside brain tumors, they weren’t thinking about how to make a better windbreaker. But in a serendipitous twist, what they’ve learned about tumor growth may end up helping manufacturers produce nylon without relying on fossil fuels.

Duke research associate Zachary Reitman Ph.D. ’12 and colleagues made the rather unusual connection while studying the development of brain tumors known as glioblastomas. They had observed that some of the enzymes produced inside tumor cells were similar to a chemical required for the production of adipic acid, one of the essential components in the manufacture of nylon. Currently, adipic acid is made in a process that is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and researchers have been searching for natural alternatives.

Reitman’s team hypothesized that inserting the genetic mutations responsible for glioblastoma into yeast would enable the microbes to naturally produce the enzyme needed to make adipic acid. They were right, demonstrating at least on a small scale that yeast can be engineered to produce the enzyme from inexpensive sugars. “This is the result of a cancer researcher thinking outside the box to produce a new enzyme and create a precursor for nylon production,” says Hai Yan, a professor of pathology and the senior researcher on the project. “Not only is this discovery exciting, it reaffirms the commitment we should be making to science and to encouraging young people to pursue science.”